Standing next to five tonnes of fully grown Asian elephant is not an everyday experience. Neither is having a half pineapple deftly snatched from your hands by a six-foot-long grey probing trunk. But when you visit a certain pachyderm paradise hidden away in the Mae Taman valley of Northern Thailand, you quickly get used to all this and more. Welcome to the Elephant Nature Park, a bona fide elephant sanctuary located about 50 kilometers north of the ancient city of Chiang Mai. The park is the brainchild of a Thai woman named Sangduen "Lek" Chailert. Lek is her nickname, and in Thai "lek" means small, but this small woman shoulders some big responsibility.
Originally founded in the 1996, Lek's park has become a loving home to, at last count, 34 elephants. Almost all of the elephants at the park have been rescued from either abuse, neglect or, worst of all, downsizing, the tour guide, an equally petite young Thai woman, explains to the group of visitors this January day. She says traditionally elephants were used in Thailand's logging industry, but after a logging ban enacted in 1989, these working elephants became liabilities and were often sold into the tourist trade or just let loose. And while an elephant in the tourist trade may only have to contend with a certain loss of dignity, a fully grown elephant roaming an inhabited countryside quickly becomes a pest and is dealt with as such. Of the many elephants taken into the park over the years one was blinded, one lost a tusk to poachers, one lost a foot to a land mine, and 2 were orphaned, she says. However, since it's founding the park has recorded seven births. No history of abuse for those big babies.
Lek's own history with elephants dates back to her earliest childhood. She grew up in a mountain village called Baan Lao which, the guide says, is just a few kilometers away from where Lek and her husband Adam established the park. During those formative years, Lek's grandfather, with whom she lived, had an elephant which he used to help him with his farming. "Thongkhum [golden one] was his name and he was like a member of the family," confides Lek on the park's website. Since those early years, Lek always knew that she wanted to work with elephants when she got older. On the website FAQ page, Lek explains in her own words: "I had been helping owners of other small camps to find unemployed (ex logging) elephants. During this time, I saw the poor conditions that they lived under, the cruelty and suffering and felt I could provide a better place for them. This was one of the main reasons why Elephant Nature Park came into existence."
Now, more than a decade later, her Elephant Nature Park is a leader in the small but burgeoning ethical ecotourism industry in Thailand. Its growing reputation stems from the fact that this park offers something unique to visitors — a chance to see these magnificent animals close up, and to engage with them free from chains, or saddles, or bars on a cage. Visitors are encouraged to hand feed the elephants, to bathe them in the nearby creek, to pat their leathery prickly hides, and then to watch them cavort in the mud as they take their afternoon "dirt bath." It is an unforgettable day trip for many travelers and the number of repeat guests this park receives testifies to the quality of the experience. In this tour group alone, one Dutch woman says she's been to the park three times over the years, and upon our arrival at the compound she greets several other "veterans" who are also return visitors.
The Elephant Nature Park operates as a non-profit organization, and although revenue is generated by the new and repeat tourists, there's always a need for a little bit more coin in the coffers. That's why the park website has set up a sponsorship program which allows internet visitors to foster or adopt an individual member of the herd, buy him or her some important medical supplies, or even just buy them an elephant-sized lunch for a modest 10 bucks. Feeding more than two-dozen wild elephants isn't cheap, as a fully grown Asian elephant can eat up to 250 kilograms of food a day, so that $10 goes a long way.
Another incentive, that generates much needed revenue, is the park's volunteer program. This program offers those who want to more fully immerse themselves in this magical elephant world a chance to go the extra step and stay for one night, or up to two weeks, in the park's guest quarters. The cost is modest (about $150 for an overnight stay, including meals) and everyone who does stay overnight is also required to participate in the running of the camp. Whether that means prepping elephant breakfasts, taking one of these gentle giants for a morning constitutional, or just helping with the daily riverside scrub sessions, everyone pitches in and does his or her share. Even the small children, of the families that have built their vacations around coming to the park, lend a hand where needed. And everyone seems only too happy to carry out the chores they are assigned. Each elephant is also cared for individually by a dedicated mahout (a trained Thai elephant handler), who tends to any elephant ailments as well as their feeding and bathing. But overnight visitors can get a bit of hands on mahout experience as well.
To be fair, this is not the only wildlife park in the area offering an elephant experience. There are many competitors, and in the nearby tourist mecca of downtown Chiang Mai, the adverts in the travel agent kiosks all clamour for a piece of the valuable tourist dollar. But what you won't find at Lek's sanctuary are flashy gimmicks like the dubious "elephant rides" that are promoted at other elephant parks. No doubt the idea of riding one of the largest land mammals on the planet is pretty enticing to the average tourist, but the experience at the Elephant Nature Park is about respect, and not about servitude. After all, most of these animals have been through enough. And despite all their prior rough treatment, these noble beasts are gracious and gentle with the passing parade of trekkers that file through the park gates day after day. Some lucky guests are even treated to an "elephant trunk kiss," which is much like having a sticky moist vacuum cleaner nozzle pressed against your cheek for a brief second or two.
Of course, the park is not without its share of problems. Despite being featured on National Geographic TV, Animal Planet, and the Discovery Channel, and having favourable articles appear in major newspapers all over the world, the operation is still struggling to overcome certain obstacles. A major priority is acquiring more land. Although the park is, the guide says, over 100 acres at present, there's always need for more space to provide for the ever increasing number of elephants that need to be rescued. And there are many elephants in Thailand that need rescuing. Baby elephants, who get separated from their herd, are especially vulnerable as Thai locals can make a good living getting naïve tourists to buy a banana or two to feed to these undernourished orphans that they parade through the noisy city streets. With their feet in shackles, these motherless creatures are subjected to an early life of servitude, often suffering cruel beatings for any disobedience. It is amazing that in a country where elephants are a revered national symbol, people can get away with treating these animals in the most undignified manner imaginable.
A further problem facing Lek's secluded forest valley is the ever present spectre of encroaching development. But the karmic wheel often comes full circle and, as visitors to the park are treated to a 45-minute video presentation about Lek's efforts to save the elephants (part of the park education portion of the tour). Included is how Lek recently had a group of local monks come to her aid to help stave off the progress of these large scale developers. The monks took it upon themselves to travel throughout the surrounding forests, where they encircled selected tree trunks with yellow silk ribbons, thus deeming them to be scared and not to be cut down. Of course, it's anyone's guess how long these safeguards can last, as ancient traditions and modern values seldom co-exist harmoniously, but for now all is well back in the elephant valley. The herd, all of whom have names and very distinct personalities, go about their daily business without incident, and as long as Lek can keep her dream alive a small number of lucky elephants have a safe haven.
"I am glad to have the chance to encourage the preservation of my local culture and play a part in keeping this precious creature alive," Lek explains as part of her website mission statement. "There are real and extremely serious problems ahead for the Asian Elephant and I hope that I can impress upon you the importance of projects like mine."
Look any member of her happy herd in its big brown eye and you'll see in an instant the importance of her project.
Bruce Scott is a Canadian currently living in Thailand.Nike Shoes